If I’m driving through a county-seat town for the first time, I usually make a lap around the courthouse. The appearance of that structure says something.
Years ago, I stopped in Baxley to fill my gas tank. The service station attendant pointed to the construction activity across the street. “That’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he fumed. “That old courthouse ain’t worth fixing up.”
A few years later, I pulled back in to the station for another fill-up. The same fellow greeted me. This time, I pointed to the building across the street. Before I could say anything, he piped up: “Doesn’t it look great? We’re really proud of our courthouse.”
We are warned: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Still, when I see a courthouse that’s begging for repair, I form an opinion: this is a community crying for someone to care.
A pen-and-ink drawing of Wayne County’s courthouse hangs over my desk. Every time I walk into my office, the image speaks to me. Without stepping into that high-ceiling center hall on the corner of Brunswick and Walnut streets, I can smell the well-oiled floors and hear the pine boards creak.
As a young newspaperman, I quickly learned the office locations of Ordinary Gordon Bishop, Sheriff L.B. Warren and Clerk of Court Stetson Bennett Jr. I also remember the day an angry constituent declared that he was going to clean out the courthouse and flung a hive of bees inside the front door. And I’ll never forget the first time I was called for jury duty and spent hours debating the verdict in that small corner room.
That’s why I like Huey Theus’ artwork in full view. The drawing was done in 2002, just after the then 100-year-old courthouse was returned to its original glory. Inmates did much of the renovation. Many of them were found guilty in the very courtroom they helped to restore. Talk about a novel way to pay for your crime. I like what that says, too.
There aren’t many courthouses in Georgia that I haven’t seen. A few are ugly, but many are strikingly handsome. One of my all-time favorites sits across from Sparta’s downtown square. Maybe I should say: “was one of my favorites.” I am still sad about what happened in Hancock County on Aug. 11th.
Three days earlier, I almost stopped to take a picture of the 1883 architectural gem, but I kept on rolling. “Next time,” I rationalized. A pre-dawn blaze sent flames leaping into the night’s sky. The damage is estimated at $5 million, but you can’t put a price on all that went up in smoke.
I’ve been circling the Highway 15 town’s square since 1966, when I enrolled in The University of Georgia. And for 48 years I have admired the Hancock courthouse. That’s why I stopped last week. For the longest time, I just stood and looked at the charred skeleton of what was once a splendid landmark. Before walking away, I snapped some photos.
A wealthy planter loaned the money to build the original courthouse. At his death, his daughter forgave the debt. That said something 100-plus years ago. Today, the Middle Georgia county is one of our state’s most economically challenged. Still, the community vows to rebuild.
Thank you, Hancock County.
I really like what that says.